New Miami Beach Police Chief Wants to Reestablish Ties to Vigilante Group

John Deutzman and Michael DeFilippi founded the Facebook group Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness.
John Deutzman and Michael DeFilippi founded the Facebook group Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness. Photo by Laura Morcate
The last time Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness made the news, then-Police Chief Daniel Oates was distancing himself from the controversial vigilante group and vaguely claiming its new leader had put cops in danger and kicked many police officers out of its Facebook group. Now, five months later, the city has a new police chief, and he's moved quickly to reestablish ties with the secret, unsearchable group — despite concerns previously raised by organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a letter sent to commissioners last week, the Police Citizen Relations Committee wrote that the new chief hopes to "expand open lines of communication with residents" by working with the Facebook group.

"The MBPD, under the new leadership of Chief Rick Clements and Deputy Chief Wayne Jones, is in favor of improving its relationship with the Miami Beach Crime Prevention & Awareness Facebook Group," the letter said. "By working with the Facebook Group, MBPD aims to further expand open lines of communication with residents to prevent crime and enhance public safety."
Chief Clements provided sparse details about the scope of the relationship or what it entails and told New Times via email it is being reestablished with a goal of "information sharing and community awareness." He said the relationship is informal rather than laid out in a written agreement and involves "mutual respect and an acknowledgment of each other's responsibilities with regards to the accurate reporting of incidents of crime in the City of Miami Beach."

"With crime prevention and community awareness at the forefront of our policing strategy, this group offers us the opportunity to utilize a popular social media platform to get out accurate information regarding crime on the streets of Miami Beach," Clements continued.

As New Times reported in a December 2017 cover story, Miami Beach Crime Prevention and Awareness was launched in July 2017 by residents John Deutzman and Michael DeFilippi (who left the group amid a leadership shakeup earlier this year). The group was formed to fight what residents saw as an uptick in crime. Members share crime statistics, photos, and information about people they believe to be criminals. They also push for new laws meant to improve public safety. 

Some of the group's tactics are troubling, however. Before being ousted from the Facebook group, New Times documented members discussing running civilian stings or trying to harm would-be thieves. Past street patrols appeared to focus on the homeless and minorities, though the founders vehemently denied that.

The group's push for higher bonds in court also means keeping suspects behind bars before they have even been convicted — a burden that falls on only the poor, who can't afford to buy their way out. Members' advocacy led to the hiring of a new special prosecutor who focuses on people accused of violating city laws, such as drinking in public or trespassing in a park after hours. A Miami Herald investigation found the majority of people prosecuted under that program were homeless.

Despite the controversy, Miami Beach Police and city officials have mostly lauded the group since its debut. In January 2018, city commissioners awarded its founders a certificate of appreciation. Mayor Dan Gelber even gave the group a shout-out in his State of the City Address last December, calling it "incredibly vigilant and effective." The rift between the police department and the Facebook group developed this past February, amid allegations that group members had posted a picture of an undercover cop they believed to be a drug dealer, blowing the operation.

Oates, who has since retired from the police department, told New Times at the time he hoped, eventually, cooler heads would prevail and the relationship could be repaired.

Asked about the controversy surrounding the group, Clements said only that the police department does not control whom the administrators allow into the group. "Moreover," he added, "our focus is not on a person's status but rather the incident of crime and crime prevention." 
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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas